Sunday, 19 October 2014

the cycling horde

We take a train to the border with China from Ulaanbaatar.  As we trundle through the capital we begin to get an idea of the scale of the city.  In the downtown it reminds us of China - lots of construction of new appartment blocks and a giant shopping centre.  Every road is jammed with traffic - mostly 4-wheel drives.  It's another country compared to where we've just been and it took us a few days to get used to it.   Now as we depart through the 'suburbs' we can see the sprawl of new homes, mostly gers erected within a small fenced allotment.  It's thought that almost 3/4 million Mongolians have migrated to the capital in the last few years, many because they have lost their livestock in recent terrible winters.  And it seems obvious that if you want a job in Mongolia you would have to come to Ulaanbaatar.  It will probably kill off most of those small towns and large villages we have been through.

Genghis sits proudly in UB's main square to greet all cycle tourists

Our train is full of Mongols preparing to swarm across the border and into China for a spot of pillaging and looting. Or shopping as we call it these days.  We wonder how the relationship is with China these days - Mongolia is beginning a mining boom for coal, copper and other minerals.  It will become rich quickly but it remains to be seen how the money will get spent.  Our landlady at the hostel was doubtful - too much corruption, too many government ministers with family connections with China. She also complained about how the Russians had destroyed her country.  Her own grandfather, a wealthy farmer with several thousand animals, was killed in the purges of the '30's.  It seems Mongolia, once the home of the most feared tribe on the planet, is now pinned down between two awfully strong neighbours.  If you have a business in UB then you probably have to know some Chinese.  The young woman on the bunk above Gayle is heading to Beijing to buy clothes.  We assume she means wholesale - it's a long way to get a new outfit for the winter. She has her young son with her but he is deposited at a station in the night, presumably with grandparents.  She doesn't speak Chinese though - "there are many Mongolians in Beijing".  Were there ever.  When Genghis and his mates crashed the party in China they were the first foreign rulers of China.  It was his grandson Kublai that then established the Yuan dynasty which ruled over most of present-day China and modern Mongolia.  And here lies the rub.  The Chinese now view the Yuan as their own, and Mongolia as part of their territory.  Oh the irony.

The border crossing in the morning is a pain.  You are not allowed to cycle the 800 metres or so of road approaching and in-between the border posts.  We know this but we are reluctant to pay for a 800 metre jeep ride if we can help it.  But the border guards won't have it.  A bus driver is told to take us to the Mongolian border post, but he tells us to get out and take our bikes with us once we get to the post.  Can't blame him - cheeky freeloaders.  After being stamped out of Mongolia we are then told we must take another ride to the Chinese side.  We end up paying $5 each for the 300 metre stretch.  On the Chinese side there is more doubt when they see our bikes.  We must take a ride.  But we haven't even been stamped in yet, we have to point out.  We are finally reunited with our jeep driver, who clearly thought he'd seen the back of us.  His two Mongolian passengers are crossing the border for "shopping" and the man is really friendly and helps us load and unload the bags and bikes.  Finally we are over the border.  Breathe out.  And relax.  

dogs don't walk in China, but are ferried everywhere
China.......  We love it.  We really enjoyed being here in 2009 and 2010.  It's got loads to fault it for, but it also has great people and great food.  And great bike lanes.  The border town of Erlian has the typical wide boulevards with bike lanes wide enough for a bus or a cycling horde.  
But these days there are more electric bicycles and scooters than cyclists.  One great thing about Chinese towns and cities is that motorbikes are banned.  It means you don't get the noise or pollution (at the point of use, at least).  We cycle into the town centre and ask about the bus station.  Yes, yes, I know we're supposed to be cycle tourists, but have you seen how big the bloody Gobi is?

the only identifiable snack food we could find

There's a bus to Zhangjiakou (a good tongue-twister for the Mandarin beginner's class) at 6.30 in the morning every day.  But can we take our bicycles on it?  The Mandarin for bicycle is zixingche - an even better tongue-twister. Yes, no problem, says the woman at the ticket counter.  But she's not the bus driver. The next morning his reaction is "mei you" - a familiar refrain we are used to.  All bus drivers say no when they see our loaded bikes.  Finally he agrees and we squeeze our bikes and panniers into a crowded hold.  Seven hours later we arrive at our destination -  a city you've never heard of with over half a million residents.  It only takes us an hour to cycle beyond the outskirts. 
interesting variant
 There is an expressway to Beijing but we have spotted a little back road that runs alonside it on Google Maps.  We don't have a map, but this back road, the G110, runs all the way to the capital, so we will have to stick to it.  The little back road has eight lanes as we leave the city.  This gradually goes down to four, but there seems to be rather a lot of trucks.  We pass a huge power station with ten chimneys belching out smoke - it is an archetypal image of modern China at it's worst.  There has been little 'greenbelt' land so far and when we draw alongside what looks like a tree-nursery we decide to pull off the road, even though it is not yet dark.  There are plantations of various types of tree and we nestle our tent in amongst a thicket of thin but densely planted ones.  We are suddenly invisible. We are not so far from the road and we fall asleep to the steady drone of trucks that continues all night long.

an oasis

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